When I first saw the television images of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the smoke billowing around its spire, my heart sank. I was blessed to have visited the church about 20 years ago, and I was saddened by the beautiful art and religious artifacts that would likely be lost in the blaze.
Thanks to the herculean efforts of French firefighters and a heroic fire brigade chaplain much of that heritage was saved. And many people around the world have stepped up to fund the effort to rebuild the cathedral. One news report two days after the fire noted that almost $1 billion had already been pledged for the cause.
This is good news. The cathedral should be rebuilt, even though Catholicism in France and much of western Europe is experiencing hard times. Mass attendance has been decreasing for many years, and fewer people identify themselves as religious. But I was heartened that Parisians gathered in nearby streets to pray during and after the fire. Maybe this tragedy has reawakened the faith of some people who have fallen away from the Church. Few would argue with the power of this magnificent 800-year-old edifice to elicit awe, wonder and a sense of something greater than oneself. Perhaps Notre Dame is a reminder of the power of beauty to lead people to — or back to — God.
But the fire and the pledges to rebuild Notre Dame should also remind us of some other important things — about the Church and about the good that humanity can accomplish at its best.
While the cathedral is a wonderful expression of our Catholic faith, we shouldn’t forget that the Church isn’t just about buildings. The Church is the People of God, the Body of Christ active in the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world could muster the same enthusiasm for rebuilding broken parts of the Body of Christ as it has for repairing Notre Dame?
What if we raised $1 billion in two days to fund anti-poverty efforts in the United States? What could $1 billion dispersed to Catholic Charities agencies around the country accomplish to help the homeless, struggling families and rural communities?
What if we raised $1 billion in two days to help Catholic Relief Services meet the emergency needs of people recovering from conflicts, natural disasters and other crises? Or to assist agencies like Aid to the Church in Need that help Christians around the world who are persecuted or facing other difficult situations?
Money aside, what could we accomplish, even in our own backyards, if more people joined together for outreach and volunteer efforts?
Let’s applaud the generosity of the people who are contributing to the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a treasure for our Church and the world, and it shouldn’t be forsaken.
But let’s not forget about the other treasures of the Church — its people, especially those who are hurting and in need. Let’s make it a priority to rebuild the broken parts of the Body of Christ with the same enthusiasm.
If we could make significant progress toward that goal, we would leave a legacy for future generations that is as hopeful and awe-inspiring as the greatest of cathedrals.